Defying the stereotypes

By Lekshmi Parmeswaran
In Issue 7
April 4, 2016
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Positive steps taken in some states to improve the lives of transgenders should be replicated

G-TaxiAcceptability is something that every human craves for. The way the society is defined conventionally has place only for those who conform to well-defined social constructs. Anything out of the sacrosanct standard is often ridiculed. This is the reality which stares in the face of those thousands of transgender persons in the country. For them every day is a struggle in a society that refuses to accord them the basic dignity of life. Because of such social oppression, many are forced to lead a life of utter misery frequently resorting to begging and prostitution.

It all seems ironical when one takes a look at history. Transgender communities are not the product of recent times. In fact their history dates back to 4000 years and are chronicled in the ancient texts where they are revered as bearers of luck and fertility. Over the years, the perceptions drastically changed and the term ’transgender’ came to be associated solely with sexual orientation. It was forgotten that being a transgender pertains to the complex question of gender identity and the society as a whole had to take part in understanding these conflicts.

Unfortunately the deep seated societal bias ostracized the entire class of transgender persons. And in order to legitimize the atrocities and ill-treatment meted out to them, many superstitions came to be associated with them. They were relegated to the deepest corners of the society where even their existence was never acknowledged. But against all these odds, the transgender community stood united and kept giving strength to more and more people to fight their personal demons.

Here what needs to be understood is that transgender is a wide encompassing term and includes cross-dressers, trans-women, trans-men and any gender role that do not fit into the accepted social definitions. In India, transgenders are mostly associated with the ‘hijra’ community due to the traditions and history associated with them. Their guru-chela system where an older member takes the responsibility of a newly inducted person has proved to be a strong support system in overcoming the challenges.

Perhaps it was this persistence and the absolute confidence of the community in their decisions that slowly brought about a change in mindsets. In 2014, in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of India recognized transgenders as the third gender. They were finally counted in the census and were given the rights to cast votes as third gender. This was historic in many ways. Apart from the recognition, it meant that they could now be part of the mainstream society and demand their rights like any other citizen of the country. They could walk with their heads held high without having to assert their identities every single time.

In the midst of such an extraordinary moment, the government of Kerala surprised all by coming out with a Transgender Policy in 2015. Though prior to this, Tamil Nadu had set up a Special Welfare Board for transgenders and the Karnataka government has passed a resolution entitling transgenders to be included under 2A of the Backward Class Commission that allows 15 per cent reservation to section minorities, sex workers and children of people living with HIV/ Aids. This particular move is way ahead of all the measures that have been taken to ensure the welfare of the community.

Kerala’s transgender policy

By becoming the first state in the country to have a Transgender Policy, Kerala has indeed set an illustrious example for the nation to follow. This step assumes greater significance when the ground realities are taken into consideration. Kerala is without doubt a land of paradoxes. While on one hand, it has shown its refusal to adapt itself to the modern day norms, on the other it has accorded dignity to a section of population considered social pariahs by many in the country.

The State Policy for Transgenders in Kerala, 2015 unveiled at the first international conference on gender equality has touched upon almost all aspects of the lives of transgenders. The policy which follows the Supreme Court Judgment aims to expand the scope of Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Indian Constitution thus doing away with the false binaries. It clearly bars the use of the term ‘others’ for gender identification and gives a person the right to identify themselves as male, female or the third gender.

While the policy prohibits any form of discrimination of transgenders, it also ensures their right to live with privacy and personal integrity.  For this, provisions have been made for affirmative action treating the community as socially and educationally backward. This is a significant step for a community that has consistently faced exploitation at the hands of authorities. The state wide survey conducted by the Social Justice Department has brought to light some harsh realities of harassment which obstructs the transgenders from leading a normal life.

Due to the social stigma attached, another growing concern among the community is the spread of HIV and other life threatening diseases. Many of the hospitals refuse to treat them leaving them to their fate. The policy has addressed this issue by providing for separate HIV Sero-surveillance centers and by bringing transgenders under the cover of various health schemes. A supplementary clause enabling the establishment of a fund for Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) in government hospitals comes across as compassionate.  Mention is made on the need to sensitize the hospital staff on how to deal with cases involving transgenders. Provisions are also made for their housing and to provide the elderly with monthly pension.

In addition to all these measures, the policy has ensured the community equal political and social rights. They are actively encouraged to take part in all the decision making processes. This would in essence mean that the country will get more number of transgender MLAs and MPs.  To ensure their judicial rights, it has been stipulated to constitute a state Transgender Justice Board and district Transgender Justice Committees. An option for legal remedy will go a long way in empowering the community and helping them find a strong foothold in the society.

Erasing the blemishes

The tides are definitely changing in favor of the transgender community. The country got its first transgender band this year named ‘6 Pack Band’ based in Mumbai, and its popularity has been soaring with each day. Manabi Bandopadhyay has become India’s first transgender college principal, Kamla Jaan has become the first women transgender mayor and Kalki Subramaniam has become India’s first transgender entrepreneur. These are some of the people who have made the country proud. The introduction of ‘G-Taxi’ service in Kerala, owned and operated by transgenders is another promising initiative and an indication of brighter times to come.

All said, the integration of transgenders in the society will require victories in multiple struggles. For example, despite much agitation, Article 377 criminalizing ‘unnatural sex’ is still around and is often used to harass transgenders. Until the lawmakers and legislators of the country become pragmatic enough to do away with this section, transgenders can never be fully brought to the mainstream.

Changing the mindset of the society as a whole is a huge challenge. It will be some time before people learn to embrace the differences whole-heartedly. The first humane gesture that the state can do is to give transgenders access to public spaces especially schools, hospitals and toilets.  Along with this, the transgender community should also reciprocate these gestures and stop activities like pick-pocketing which has forced the society to view them with fear and suspicion.

Then there is the question of trans-men. For a man trapped in a woman’s body, it is all the more difficult to come out in the open. There is no support system in place for such individuals and most of them live a life of desolation. In cases where the societal oppression is absolute, transgenders often resort to substance abuse. The need of the hour is to create an environment conducive enough for those who identify themselves differently to lead a normal life. Sex change surgeries should be a deeply personal choice and not a decision arrived upon due to feelings of neglect. For a country like India that has rested its faith in democratic rights, the welfare of transgenders will be the ultimate test of all the values that the nation has been proud of.